Review: MUSC’s Plastic Shakespeare12 May 2018
Melbourne University Shakespeare Company’s Plastic Shakespeare is all the things good theatre should be: surprising, challenging, arresting, often confusing, but ultimately entertaining and thought-provoking. If you want an evening of amusement that’ll leave you staggering off into the moonlit campus scratching your head and wondering “What did I just watch?” then get thee to the Guild Theatre.
Muddying the already murky waters of Australia’s complex relationship with Shakespeare, the first part of MUSC’s Plastic Shakespeare, Hamlet by the Pool is neither really about the pool nor Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. Instead, Isobel Milne’s farce deftly blurs the limits of audience expectations regarding both character, and narrative, creatively posing the ubiquitous Shakespearean question of life as theatre and theatre as life; the ‘all the world’s a stage’ manifesto is turned inside out. At one point, the prop swords magically become real, with the characters’ egos somehow overpowering the bounds of diegetic reality to accidentally murder one another.
All of the performers become an elegantly balanced comedic machine once they hit their stride, deftly moving between their various characters of the play-within-the-play-within-the-play (!!!) with ease and mastery over Milne’s hilariously clever script. Disorientingly toying with both comic and tragic conventions in a regularly laugh-out-loud funny manner, Hamlet by the Pool abstracts our relationship with Shakespeare and his works into a riotous meditation on the Bard’s relevance and reception/corruption.
Even further abstracted from traditional Shakespeare territory, Sarah Bostock and Sophie Chauhan’s ENGRAFT is an often-gripping, beautifully poetic ride into female consciousness and identity. Returning from the interval involves a serious change of pace, but once you stop trying to work out which Shakespeare play the production is drawing from (all of them? None of them?) you’ll find yourself immersed in an original and refreshing theatre of female identity. Interrogating the relationship between self and other as mediated by memory, the all-female cast deftly navigate a sparse stage and complex script, their duologues crossing from rage to tenderness in a heartbeat.
Although the production occasionally descends into melodrama, ENGRAFT ambitiously tackles an interior female, lesbian world that is distinctly absent from Shakespeare’s canon, and often absent from theatre in general. Lydia Bell as the central female figure shows an astounding range and is both subtle and mesmerising, acting for the majority of the play within a one-by-one-metre square frame. The actors’ confident use of their bodies in ENGRAFT is just as much the focus on the sparse stage as Bostock and Chauhan’s script, which sometimes wavers on the brink of corniness only to be brought back with a moment of deeply genuine affective poetry.
Like peanut butter and chocolate, Shakespeare and Warhol, MUSC’s Plastic Shakespeare presents a continual pairing of elements that shouldn’t quite work together, but, nine times out of ten, they do, and it makes for beautiful, original theatre.
Plastic Shakespeare has its last shows this afternoon (1:30pm) and evening (7:30pm) in Union House’s Guild Theatre, Saturday May 12th. The Saturday matinee will be AUSLAN-interpreted. You can buy tickets online here or in cash on the door.